Law firms are struggling to retain women lawyers, who are seeking smaller firms, in-house roles and other careers that give them more control over their work and their personal lives.

People were always asking San Francisco attorney Mae O’Malley how she lined up so much contract legal work as she juggled continuing her law career and raising three children. Her secret: As a former in-house counsel, she had built up a clientele, including Google Inc., and was ready for solo work after her third child was born.

Last year, O’Malley, 34, created a company built on her strategy, giving her the opportunity to share the trick with the many other women who have asked about it. She opened Paragon Legal Group in September and already has 20 lawyers working for her on either a full-time or part-time basis, 90 percent of whom are women.

The attorneys make as much as $175 per hour, and she expects the San Francisco-based company will have $1 million in revenue this year.

“We have several women who are leaving firms and coming to us,” O’Malley said. “We allow them to continue to practice with challenging assignments on a much more flexible basis.”

As big law firms struggle to retain women lawyers and boost them into leadership roles, they’re losing many to contract positions, smaller firms, in-house jobs, government posts and legal aid careers that women lawyers say give them more control over their work and personal lives. Law firms are trying to reverse the trend with some new policies as clients seek diverse legal teams, but so far seem to have had little effect.

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